Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom
“For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”
―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer
English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.
A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner,” the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)
Of course, English language learners make these sort of “good mistakes” all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies.” Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r,” even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine,” “mines,” “mind,” or “miner?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem. Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. We must first admit that English is a crazy language.
If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.
What three tips would offer new a ESL/EFL teacher?
Hall Houston, author of Provoking Thought: Memory and Thought in ELT, posed this question to several prominent English language trainers and teachers last year. Sean Banville, Russell Stannard, Chia Suan Chong, Nik Peachey, Scott Thornbury, and myself replied. (Naturally, I feel grateful to be included with these far more notable and accomplished ELT educators.) Houston placed these practical, sometimes surprising, and often illuminating responses together in the back of his latest educational book The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL.
1. Create Classroom Rituals – Beginnings and endings matter. Establishing clear classroom expectations and class rituals increase student comfort, establish a professional atmosphere, and improve student learning. One of my favorite classroom rituals is asking a personal question on the daily attendance sheet that re-enforces the day’s lesson, checks off a bureaucratic necessity, allows individual student expression, and builds group cohesion and student curiosity. Adding a relevant pithy quotation at the bottom adds another layer of engagement.
2. Encourage “Good Mistakes” – Since mistakes are both inevitable and part of the learning process, encourage students to take chances, stretch their English muscles, and make “good mistakes” in a safe, tolerant space. Good mistakes are common mistakes that we can learn from so we can go on to make new, different, and better “good mistakes”. Sometimes students allow the demon of perfectionism to paralyze them, and framing errors as “good mistakes” can reduce the fear and stigma around making errors so students can learn more by doing more.
3. Deploy YouTube (or other video channels) – The easy access to thousands of authentic materials on YouTube and other online channels makes teaching English easier and more satisfying than ever. Instead of just playing a single video clip in class, you can have high intermediate and advanced students find their own videos for homework and summarize them for classmates. “Search and share” homework assignments encourage student curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and require students to speak as they describe and evaluate videos for classmates.
The ELT Daily Journal provides over a dozen similar sets of responses in the appendix. Designed for new teachers, the simple format poses a question or provides a suggestion to stimulate writing about classroom experiences. Although I’ve taught for over two decades and seldom kept a formal teaching journal, I found it a quick, satisfying read that evoked some positive and a few awkward classroom experiences. Consequently, this book serves as a quick primer on best ESL/EFL teaching practices and core ELT principles.
This thin, practical book has been added to my ESL/EFL library and professional development workshops. I look forward to sharing the book, especially with novice English teachers. I certainly wish I had read and used this journal when I taught my first English class so many moons ago. You might find it useful too.
We all have classroom experiences as students or teachers. What advice would you offer to new ESL/EFL teachers? Why?
Ask More. Know more. Share more. Speak more.
Do our students need to swim in English? Or do they need to focus on avoiding minor grammar mistakes? Should we encourage our students to speak as much English as possible? Or should we paralyze our students with exaggerated fears?
Okay, these are rhetorical questions. Yet our ESL students – even advanced ESL students – don’t have to be perfect; they have to be understood. Alas, many – far too many – English classrooms still focus far more on grammar than authentic communication skills. Our students need to speak clear, comprehensible English. Practical knowledge, not abstract theory, should be the focus of our English classes. English remains a tool and just a vital tool for our students to reach their life goals in the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom. Here is a short list of important questions for our English language learners.
Can they order food in a nice restaurant?
Can students fill in government forms?
Can they understand classified ads – online or in a paper?
Can they negotiate prices at a yard sale?
Do they understand a frontpage newspaper article?
Are ELLs able to confirm information?
Can adult students make clear recommendations?
Can ESL students share personal experiences?
Do students feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions?
Can they give a competent classroom presentation to fellow students – or at work?
Can they effectively interview for an appropriate job?
Do they feel comfortable at social events with native English speakers?
Can they, in short, swim in English?
If people want to communicate, meaning matters most. In other words, our students don’t need to speak perfect English with zero grammar errors anywhere outside of some English classrooms. Sometime English teachers, perhaps in a bid to help students ace their TOEFL scores, exaggerate grammar points that have little or no practical importance in daily life. Let’s look at some common language errors that our students make, and move the discussion outside of our ESL classrooms.
Will the absence of articles (a, an, the) prevent a student from buying something?
Will a confusion of “much” and “many” prevent someone from receiving assistance?
How crucial is subject-verb agreement in daily conversations?
Grammar fundamentalists hate hearing the simple truth. These errors of limited significance for most adult English language learners outside the English classroom and white collar professions. Our students need to swim in English more than they need to pass grammar tests.
Further, the focus on accurate grammar and the expectation of “correct” English can cause excessive self-consciousness. In fact, I’ve worked with many English language learners who use severe, often extreme negative language to describe quite competent and sometimes strong presentations in adult education, community college, and university courses. This severe self-criticism places huge barriers on many English language learners. Worse, this perfectionism ironically limits their willingness to engage with the broader English speaking society. That’s why I often tell high intermediate and advanced students, who are often quite ambitious and hard on themselves, to “kill the perfectionist demon”. During the first few weeks of class, I usually emphasize this point with a simple “swim in English” pitch.
“You don’t have to conquer English; you just have to swim in it everyday. Attentively listen to authentic English. Listen to podcasts and the radio. Create small conversations. Just ask a question. Read something in English everyday. Follow your interests in English. Allow yourself to be yourself in English. Jump into the language, and do your best. Start swimming in English. Our class is a safe place to expand your English skills, and learn by doing. I want to see significant, meaningful, and verifiable progress. I’m not interested in perfection. We want significant progress. Let’s get going and make some good mistakes together. Let’s swim in English, and see how far you can swim this semester.”
Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect; they have to be understood by listeners. They have to be functional in English. They have to perform particular language tasks. They have to speak English inside and outside the class, and successfully convey their ideas. Most English language learners need practice speaking, and positive social experiences in English. They need more conversation opportunities, and fewer grammar lessons. In short, our English students have to swim in English; they don’t have to swim across the English Channel.
So why don’t we give our students what they need to survive – and often thrive – in more English classes? Let’s help them swim – and speak – in English.
Why are so many EFL Textbooks so bland, boring, and culturally tone-deaf? Allow me to ask a more polite question.
How can English teachers working abroad and international English textbook publishers both respect local cultures and create more engaging English classroom lessons? The challenge may be more complicated than you might suspect.
A long, informative, and detailed exchange on a TESOL list serve recently focused on the peculiar sensitivities of Saudi Arabian students. An experienced American English teacher reported that his Saudi students expressed anger over a paragraph in their writing book. The imported American English language textbook, which has collected considerable critical praise, contained a paragraph celebrating friendships across many countries and religions – including an unpopular democratic rival nation of the Saudi kingdom. Working in a closed, theocratic society where women are banned from driving evidently raises many delicate problems for English teachers, and many EFL and ESL materials must be carefully edited. Obviously, discussing politics, religion, sexuality, and gender issues is clearly culturally inappropriate and often legally forbidden in this rigid Islamic kingdom.
Without passing judgment for the moment on the Saudi students’ perceptions and religious passions, let’s zoom out a bit. This awkward incident illuminates the need to explicitly tailoring English as Foreign Language (EFL) content to reflect different national cultures. It also identifies a core defect in the many EFL publishers and why so many EFL and ESL textbooks are bland, boring, and heavily censored. Who wants to offend many potential customers and clients by just mentioning a small country’s name?
As I heard explained at two fascinating TESOL workshops for EFL material writers at the 2011 conference in New Orleans, the current practice for EFL publishers is to simply collect all the possible objections, adopt the “red lines” of all countries, and uniformly impose these taboos around the world. The default advice for EFL material writers includes prohibiting not only politics, alcohol religion, sex, and nudity (predictable), but also mention of luck, negative emotions, Israel, gender roles, and pork.
Here are some memorable examples. One EFL materials writer detailed how he had to drop a chapter on bad luck because it implied that God wasn’t in control of events and might encourage superstitious thinking. Another writer told TESOL participants about having to drop a health chapter which included a “no smoking sign” because it implied that smoking was a choice. Another presenter felt proud that he was able to list “negative emotions” such as “bored”, “tired”, “unhappy” when outnumbered by positive adjectives by a 3-1 margin in a chapter on feelings.
Evidently, many educational bureaucrats evidently place creating a “harmonious society” and teaching conformity above actual language acquisition or student expression. Shock, shock. The ban on mentioning Israel comes from – as demonstrated in the Saudi Arabia classroom that sparked this informative discussion among TESOL professionals – the fashionable desire to see a democratic, successful nation abolished among many Arabs. Many British publishers have also found many Arab countries, including several former colonies and a few royal kingdoms the British Empire helped create after WWI, to be important, lucrative EFL markets. The predictable result: pandering to local prejudice and the systematic omission of positive references to Israel.
Naturally, printing world maps that ignore the existence of a small country is also an explicitly political decision so the “avoid politics” advice is a tad dishonest here. Further, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, I find the strange belief that every group deserves a nation except Jews pure bigotry and fashionable group hatred. Yet, for worse or for better, this quasi-official ban seems to be widely adopted by many British EFL publishers. (American textbook publishers, perhaps inspired by a federal law that prohibits honoring the Arab boycott of Israel, don’t appear to follow this particular practice.)
Yet rather than focusing on the passionate politics of the Mideast, let’s remember that the largest clients often dictate content in many fields. And governments and their education ministries remain, by far, the largest clients for international educational publishers. In fact, educational ministries– especially in closed, dictatorial societies where teaching critical thinking is more than discouraged, censorship taken for granted, and English often viewed with some lingering suspicion as an old imperial tongue – hold exceptional power to approve or veto EFL textbooks. Focusing on pleasing these clients, many American and British publishers have chosen to adopt all the “red lines” of various cultures. Unfortunately, this current practice ends up imposing the safest, narrowest paradigm on all their international clients – across the globe. The Saudi standard becomes the standard for French, Brazilian, Japanese, and Korean English language learners too.
After all, efficiency matters in publishing too. From a publisher’s perspective, creating one core EFL textbook and making very minor tweaks (usually illustrations) for each region works just fine. The downside, as many of us know from personal experience, is the resulting product often becomes bland, often fails to engage students, and effectively allows the most closed societies to dictate content across the globe. Both English teachers and their students lose access to more meaningful, reflective, and accurate information and wider, more modern and tolerant perspectives.
Yet satisfying student interest is far less important from a global sales perspective than meeting a ruling regime’s dictates to re-enforce local beliefs and uphold the political status quo. These larger concerns translate into many boring EFL textbooks that both pander and overlook local cultures by promoting a one-size fits all English language learners textbook. As of now, many of these well-known EFL titles still manage to sell huge numbers – and avoid dozens of engaging topics that directly relate to students’ actual lives, experiences, and hopes. For instance, English students in poor Asian, African, and Central American countries currently have to learn about housing vocabulary written from an abstract, universal perspective with examples from London, New York, and Tokyo. How relevant, appropriate, or accurate will the housing vocabulary be?
Yet there is a better, smarter, and more culturally sophisticated way to both acknowledge the political realities of working in closed societies and create more engaging EFL textbooks that express and reflect national cultures. We could develop more appropriate EFL materials that authentically reflect the actual life experiences and aspirations of English language learners in their current context. More on that topic in the next Compelling Conversations blog post.
Small American colleges often love their ambitious graduates. Wabash College, my alma mater and outstanding private liberal arts college in Indiana, certainly celebrates her favorite sons and treats them like stars. This fall’s Wabash Magazine advises graduates to “Look East, Young Man” as it celebrates the opening of the College’s new Asian Studies Center.
Inside, the magazine editor describes a “Language of Opportunity” article as “Eric Roth ’84 recounts how his attempt to start a free-thinking university in Vietnam led to the realization that the spread of the English language—in part through his own conversational English primer—may be the more immediate path to freedom of thought and expression in the region.”
Fortunately, the article also provides a larger context of teaching English in a closed (but still opening) society. The writer, Steve Charles, also explores the difficulties of adapting Compelling Conversations , an advanced conversation for ESL (English as a Second Language) students into an acceptable EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbook, and explains how I came to publish two very different English language conversation textbooks. Please note that the original ESL book has 45 chapters, including “Voting”, and the EFL version for Vietnamese English Language Learners has 15 chapters with more vocabulary definitions.
“In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, the former congressional aide and journalist (Roth) is co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The book is an alternative text for teaching conversational English as a second language (ESL). It is recommended by a leading trade journal of English teaching professionals.”
The three-page glossy magazine piece continues to provide perspective and illuminate the role of English in the 21st century. “And in case you haven’t noticed, English is well on its way to becoming the world’s dominant language,” writes Charles.
“This is the first time in world history we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country of the world,” writes David Crystal in English as a Global Language. As of 2005, almost a quarter of the world’s population spoke English as a native or second language. It is the de facto language of commerce and diplomacy. More than 80 percent of information stored on the Internet is in English. And while there are more speakers of Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, they speak English when they talk across cultures, and it is English they teach their children in order to give them a chance in the world economy. More than 20,000 ESL teaching jobs are posted monthly; no longer a fallback, teaching ESL is becoming a lucrative first or second career. Some experts predict that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will speak English.”
Reading those simple, powerful facts about the explosion of English renewed my appreciation for our role as English teachers today. English remains the language of opportunity for millions seeking to study, work, and move abroad. The article allows me to explain. “I had been teaching ESL to immigrants, and I knew English was essential to their lives in the U.S., but on this trip we saw English as a truly global language. It is the gateway to a modern world, and to 21st century lives. And in countries like Vietnam and other developing nations, English is sometimes the only accessible means to advance yourself.” This insight lead to the title “the language of opportunity”.
“Combining his teaching experience and his liberal arts background, Roth collaborated with his mother, Toni Aberson—an English teacher for 35 years—to self-publish the first edition of the book. Dedicated to his father, Dani Roth—who spoke six languages and “could talk with almost anyone”—the book provides an alternative to “presentation-practice-production” approach to language learning, instead using quotations, questions, and proverbs to prompt conversation.”
“Some [quotes and questions] will have students roaring with laughter, while others require careful introspection,” wrote a reviewer (Hall Houston) for the ESL journal English Teaching Professional. “They are highly effective for promoting student discussion.”
“In the classroom and in the book we try to create a space that’s tolerant and rigorous at the same time,” Roth says. “The focus is on learning by doing, and we want to give people room to make good mistakes—errors that help us learn. When people expect themselves to be perfect, they go silent.”
Most of the book’s prompts ask for recollections or personal opinions.“Whatever perspective you bring to the book, I want you to find validation in some great thinker, that it’s okay to see things that way. That gives us all the freedom to be ourselves and less of who we think we should be, or who we’ve been programmed or conditioned to be.”
Like many other English teachers – of all kinds – I feel rich in life experiences, but we seldom get recognized for our hard work. We also also clearly make significant contributions to our grateful students and larger, positive global trends. And recognition feels good. Therefore, I’m grateful that Wabash College, a small Midwestern college in a small town, taught me to “disagree without being disagreeable” and see the big picture.
Fluency requires practice. Our students also know that speaking English can be both satisfying and stressful. Therefore, we require speaking activities in class – and strongly suggest ways to speak more out of class. Our students want to be fluent, but they often hesitate to practice their speaking skills. Many students do not want to risk making mistakes, being misunderstood, and feeling awkward. Some prefer to silently take notes, and speak as little as possible in their English classes. We have all probably faced this situation.
Yet, as far as I know, there is no magical shortcut to fluency except practice. Our English students must practice speaking – in pairs and in small groups – even if it feels awkward. “Practice makes perfect” goes a popular proverb. Although perfection seems like a dubious ideal, practice certainly makes progress. And our students want to make meaningful progress in their speaking skills and gain greater fluency.
That’s why creating a comfortable class atmosphere remains essential. One effective way to reduce grade anxiety or classroom stress is to clearly emphasize that some activities will focus more on fluency” and other speaking activities will focus more on “accuracy”. For instance, including one casual fluency activity per class helps students simply exchange ideas and engage in low risk, safe communication between themselves.
Speaking exercises can be added across the ESL curriculum. You can often drop a short communicative exercise even in acadenuc writing classes. Fluency, after all, requires practice. Casual, ungraded classroom conversations also increase student confidence and create a more lively ESL classroom.
Asking students to reflect and share their experiences as an English learner can often lead to fascinating conversations and compelling essays. Here’s a favorite fluency activity called Learning English that I’ve used with both intermediate and advanced ESL students in both oral skills and writing classes. When I taught advanced ESL at Santa Monica Community College, I often used Learning English to introduce their first essay. Students often responded with enthusiasm. Perhaps your English students will too.